No project was too small nor too grand for Nicholas J. Clayton
Imagination, artistry, a perfect sense of proportion, attention to the tiniest detail and unbridled energy propelled architect Nicholas J. Clayton to design and build about 300 structures in his 40-plus working years — all sizes, shapes and kinds — many notable in Galveston, throughout Texas and beyond.
On his birthday Nov. 1, the city of Galveston, with the Galveston Historical Foundation, will celebrate Clayton and his legacy with various activities.
Clayton was driven to create. It seems every project was a labor of love, from the perfectly cut mosaic steppingstones carved from granite samples for his own home, to construction of the elaborate turrets, towers and sweeping Gothic lines of Galveston’s Ursuline Academy, 25th Street and Avenue N. For Clayton, no project was too small nor too grand.
In a copy of his 1887 work calendar, on file at the Rosenberg Library History Center, there are numerous work orders, notations and appointments in fancy cursive writing — 139 in January alone, dutifully recorded by his assistants. There are appointments with Mrs. George Ball on the design of her home, ongoing plans for the Walter Gresham house, but also designs for a new staircase, a cemetery monument and an East End outhouse.
His joy was his work. It brought him fame, never fortune, but a permanent place in architectural history and many admirers.
Clayton also earned the deep affection and esteem of of his descendants, who relate with ease and pride the stories of their great-grandfather, which have been remembered, retold and lovingly shared.
Michael Sparks, a great-grandson, said he can’t remember not knowing about Nicholas Clayton.
“He was always a part of our life,” Sparks said.
When Sparks was 10 years old, his grandfather, Nicholas Clayton Jr. — Clayton’s second son and an electrician — used to bring him along on weekend jobs. At lunch, he would take Michael to look at the different buildings his father had designed in the latter part of the 19th century. Sparks’ favorite was the Ursuline Academy, which was unfortunately demolished in the 1960s.
From early childhood, Sparks and his cousins were surrounded by a legacy of Clayton artifacts and stories. In his grandfather’s house in La Marque, the children would play among an attic treasure trove of memorabilia from the Claytons’ Galveston household. There was art, James McNeill Whistler etchings in a leather pouch, sculptures, books and a Tiffany stained-glass window sent to Nicholas Clayton as a sample in the 1880s.
Family stories illuminate the kind of man Clayton was. For example, Sparks recalls one of these:
“On a morning in the 1880s, a young man, newly married, called on Clayton at his office on Postoffice Street to inquire about a design for a small house. The man did not have an appointment, and Clayton was busy with dozens of important projects in process. Characteristically kind and curious, Clayton sat down with the man, talked with him at length, and would not let him leave until he had hand sketched several designs for the man to show his bride.”
Clayton was more than an architect of genius, though his work was clearly his passion. He also was a devoted son, a dutiful husband, a doting father, an ample provider, deeply religious and a man who enjoyed a quiet domestic life for many years.
He arrived in Galveston in October 1871 when he was 32 years old as the supervising architect for the First Presbyterian Church, 1903 Church St., and the new Tremont Hotel on Mechanic and 23rd Street in the island’s downtown.
He had curly brown hair worn closely cropped in the style of the day, pale blue eyes and stood about 5 feet 10 inches, although he is later characterized as “short, stout and handsome,” by his daughter, Mary, in her published reminiscences. As he grew older, and his hair turned gray, he wore it longer.
Clayton dressed according to the style of a professional man, including a bow tie before the days of clip-ons. He was robust and active and liked to walk and to swim in the Gulf. He was a member of The Knights of Columbus, The Ancient Order of Hibernians — an Irish Catholic organization — among other organizations.
Family members say he went to Mass every day, if possible, and he worked six days a week but never on Sunday or Christmas.
He was 50 years old when he married Mary Lorena Ducie, who was decades younger, on July 6, 1891. The couple had five children.
Clayton was Irish — born in County Cork on Nov. 1, 1839. He was still a young child when he immigrated with his mother, Margaret O’Mahoney Clayton, to Cincinnati, Ohio, after his father died in a granary accident. His widowed mother came to live with her brother, who made shoe buckles for a living.
As a youngster, he attended parochial schools, and later apprenticed as a plasterer and stonecutter. From 1862 to 1865, he served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. After discharge, he worked as a marble carver and as an architectural draftsman for architect W.H. Baldwin at the firm, Jones and Baldwin in Memphis, Tenn. It was this firm who sent him to Galveston as a supervising architect, and his love affair with the city began.
The city of Galveston, in partnership with the Galveston Historical Foundation, will celebrate Clayton and his legacy with an open house from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 1. The open house will allow admirers to view the 1892 Bishop’s Palace, possibly his most famous surviving residential structure. A special presentation is set for 2 p.m.
Driving tours featuring Lost Clayton and Residential Clayton will be available through the “Make History’ app for iTunes or android. Specially placed yard signs also will mark surviving Clayton structures. Visit www.galvestonhistory.org for information.
Ten things about a man who shaped the look of Galveston
1. Nicholas Clayton liked to walk. Even as he reached the pinnacle of his architectural career, Clayton liked to walk to his office at 2219 Postoffice St. On his way, he passed St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, one of the 11 churches he constructed in Galveston, and many homes and buildings of his design. He walked home for lunch and after eating, he had a one to two hour nap, then returned to work until sundown.
2. Clayton is reported to have sketched church buildings, windows, altars and steeples, even while he carried on conversations. He worked every day except Sunday and Christmas.
3. The worst name Clayton ever called anyone was “muttonhead,” according to family reminiscences. He told his boys their mouths were for praying and eating.
4. The idea for the lovely octagonal Garten Verein, 2704 Ave. O in Galveston, came to him in an instant; he finished the design in a single night. The building is clearly inspired by traditional German halls, but Clayton went beyond the traditional with elegant woodwork and beautiful interior spaces. It was for many years the social center of Galveston’s large German community, and is still a popular wedding venue.
5. Michael Sparks, a great-grandson, said he suspects Clayton’s marriage to Mary Ducie was arranged by his father-in-law, D.W. Ducie. Ducie was Clayton’s preferred painting contractor, and a friend. Another favorite family story is that on the honeymoon in Monterrey, Mexico, Clayton spent so much time sketching churches, that his new wife admonished him, implying she might return to her mother in Galveston if he didn’t pay her appropriate attention.
6. Clayton never built a home for himself. Before he married, he lived in a cottage with his mother on the southwest corner of 36th and Avenue L, which was then the outskirts of town. When he married, he purchased a house at 1205 35th St., along with the remaining half block, making them adjoining properties.
7. During the 1900 Storm, Clayton initially was at his office and had to release his horse from the carriage to keep it from drowning. The children were with Mary and her father at the house. The story Sparks remembers is this: During the lull in the storm, the older boys went out onto the second-floor porch and dangled their feet in the water, but were swiftly jerked back inside by their mother. Holes were bored into the floor so the house wouldn’t float off its foundation. All the furnishings on the first floor were lost. After the storm, D.W. Ducie is reported to have told a distraught Clayton: “You have your wife and children; I have my wife; we each have two good hands to rebuild.”
8. Clayton had a run of bad luck after the 1900 Storm. First, many of his architectural treasures were damaged, which was a heartache for the man who took pride in his work. Cultural tastes were changing and the public was less appreciative of his style of design. Finally, a bid to build Galveston’s new county courthouse was accepted then rejected while Clayton was out of state on a project. A lawsuit followed, which he ultimately lost, and Clayton was forced to begin bankruptcy proceedings.
9. When Clayton earned a commission to restore the main building of St. Edward’s University in Austin, he moved his family to the capital city for six to eight months. During that time, he often took the boys swimming at the legendary Barton Springs.
10. Nicholas Clayton was repairing his own chimney by the light of a candle in November 1916 when his wool undershirt caught on fire. He was severely burned. Despite his excellent health, he succumbed to pneumonia on Dec. 9, 1916. He was 76 years old and had lived in Galveston 45 years.